TCS Daily

Thailand Catches the Flu Bug

By Manjusha Devi - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Thailand has once again been caught by surprise with the outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus and authorities are grappling with ways to handle the situation better than their past experience.

The deadly virus, also called Avian Flu, has created havoc in Thailand and its neighboring countries and has been blamed for the death of as many as 30 people in the region. Last week Vietnam confirmed a new bird flu death when a 14-month-old baby in Hanoi died, bringing the death toll in Vietnam to 20. The infant had the bird flu's typical symptoms of fever and coughing on August 28 and died September 5.

This was just a few days after the 26-year-old Thai woman, Pranee Sodchuen, died in what is suspected to be the first human-to-human transmission of the disease. Pranee was Thailand's 10th victim and died on September 20. Authorities suspect she caught the disease while taking care of her sickened daughter Sakuntala, 11, who died September 12. The girl was cremated before she could be tested to confirm she had bird flu. It was reported that Pranee never came in contact with poultry and did not live with her daughter who was being raised in a village where chickens were bred. This led authorities, both local and from the World Health Organization, to describe her as the first probable case of a human contracting the disease from another human.

The fear of mutation and transfer from human-to-human has raised fears of a global health crisis and world organizations are demanding a higher level of efforts to contain this virus. Although no tests have shown that the virus, H5N1, has mutated, the death of Pranee has cast doubts on the whole process.

More and more reports are flowing in of possible new outbreaks and nearly 30 of Thailand's 76 provinces are reported to have been effected. In recent months, outbreaks also have been reported in Malaysia, China, Cambodia and Indonesia. The new outbreaks come after earlier outbreaks late last year and early this year which had brought the 60 billion baht ($1.5 billion) poultry industry in Thailand to a grinding halt. The previous outbreak had taken off nearly 0.5 percent of Thailand's gross domestic product during the first quarter of this year as it wiped out the export of poultry and kept the tourism dollars away as visitors avoided taking vacations to Thailand.

To fend off such impact this time, Thailand has taken a stance to try to wipe out the virus within a month. During the previous outbreak, Asian countries overall had slaughtered more than 50 million chickens and ducks as part of their efforts to control the spread of the virus. No such slaughters have been announced so far, but zones of Thailand have been quarantined in order to avoid movement of birds.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has said that the next 30 days mark a crucial period for eradicating avian flu before the virus has a chance to multiply and do more damage in the upcoming cool season. He has said that heads would roll if the job was not done on time with special instructions going to Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng.

Mr. Chaturon said hospitals and laboratories would be supplied with more bird flu detection equipment for quicker results. The World Health Organization has commended Thailand for its commitment to stamping out bird flu.

But the damage to the poultry industry in Thailand and the region are evident. The European Union has joined its peers such as Japan and other western nations to halt shipments of poultry products from the region.

Thailand's Commerce Minister Watana Muangsook admitted that there's little his ministry can do to help curb the impact of bird flu impact on poultry exports. "There is nothing much worse than this," he said. "What we can do is just push more exports of processed chicken which fetch higher prices and gross margins than frozen ones." Watana is from a family that is synonymous with the poultry industry, Charoen Pokphand Group, Thailand's largest agricultural related conglomerate, and the world's largest exporter of poultry products.

Thailand's chicken exports were valued at around US$1.5 billion last year, or 1.27% of total exports. Fresh chicken accounted for around half of all chicken exports last year. The ban on raw meat was first imposed in late January after the Thai government confirmed the presence of avian influenza in local flocks, which ultimately led to the culling of more than 35 million birds in Thailand alone.

According to the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters' Association, broiler chickens are expected to be the local poultry industry's hardest-hit segment, with fallout of the bird flu outbreak slashing export values to about 20 billion baht this year, down from the pre-epidemic target of 45 billion baht. Broiler exports for the entire year are expected to be only 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes, against the previous projection of 530,000 tonnes.

The author is a Bangkok-based writer and reporter.


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